The Tertiary-wide System Assessment (TSA) was created to assess the performance of schools. It allows people to be able to gauge, across the board, the quality of a particular institution and helps provide insights into them for secondary school admission officers. You can, therefore, know with some certainty how well a particular child fares academically among their peers in Chinese language, English language and mathematics.
In theory, the TSA should have no immediate impact upon a student’s achievements, and it shouldn’t be a major source of pressure at all – it was designed to assess the student and staff body of a school as a whole. The TSA should like an aptitude test, where mindless drilling means very little, as the exam tests your ability to learn, not your knowledge. But the controversy and panic over the TSA has led to education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim proposing some major revisions.
Instead of being a mandatory test, some 50 local primary schools, or about 10 per cent of the total number in the city, took part in a revised version last year. He said parents who did not want their children to sit for the examination could approach their schools.
The suggested changes were misguided. With such a small sample, the TSA lost its ability to serve as an indicator of the students’ aptitude. With a majority of schools pulling out of the TSA, it put more pressure on the students who were taking the test because there was more responsibility on them to boost their school’s ranking.
Now, the Education Bureau says last year’s simplified trial of the TSA for Primary Three students will be taken at all primary schools this year. The new version is called the “Basic Competency Assessment Research Study”. So what is actually wrong with the TSA, and how can it be fixed? The TSA has been tied almostly solely to a school’s reputation – the students’ performance is apparently indicative of the quality of education provided at their school.
Teachers are given incentive to inflate tests scores by doing exam drills, and parents put pressure on their children to do well. This vicious cycle is a pointless one – especially when you take in account research that suggests there’s a link between the academic achievements or background of the parents and a student’s grades. That’s regardless of the quality of teaching given at school. In Hong Kong, a city that practically revolves around tutors and after-school classes, those who have more resources will generally perform better in the TSA than someone who doesn’t have access to those things. The assessment should therefore be viewed only as a guide for increasing resources – like subsidies for language development or extra staff support – for struggling schools, instead of as a punitive device to punish those institutions languishing at the bottom of the table.
I think it should be impressed upon school boards that the TSA is designed to direct money flow towards the lower-tiered schools, and not to “root out bad institutions”. There’s no need for it to be a point of contention at all.